Rethinking cloud storage

Cloud storage vendors might find a silver lining to the current economic cloud as companies try to cut costs. But enterprise storage shops are still wary.

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Cloud storage vendors might find a silver lining to the current economic cloud as companies try to cut costs. But enterprise storage shops are still wary.

It was approximately a year ago that I wrote about cloud storage in fairly glowing terms; if I wasn't entirely on the bandwagon back then, I was pretty close to hopping on board. Six months later I was less enthusiastic about how realistic cloud storage was for enterprises. Now I'm convinced that if cloud storage ever does play a significant role in larger companies, it won't happen anytime soon.

Make no mistake, there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about cloud storage even after it stumbled in its first incarnation some years back (see "Is cloud storage the return of the service provider?"). The services are clearly better than ever, more secure, easier to use and less expensive. So what's not to like?

For businesses with limited resources for dealing with the massive onslaught of data and the challenge of providing enough capacity to house it, cloud storage can seem like a good fit. These same businesses are also likely those struggling with backup (if they're doing it at all), so an online backup service might be a compelling alternative.

For those firms, often in the small- to medium-sized range, the perceived risks of using a cloud storage service -- data security, availability and accessibility -- are better than doing nothing or dealing with poorly maintained, inadequate systems.

But large enterprises have alternatives. If you have the infrastructure in place and recognize the value that lurks within those tons of data, you'll find the means to accommodate it. Any big organization has to think beyond just housing its data. Compliance is an obvious issue. Most companies are bound to regulatory mandates, and some have to ensure compliance with dozens of regulations.

Shipping data offsite makes compliance, which is already a pretty tough task, even more difficult. As David Sengupta of Ferris Research recently pointed out in an email newsletter, "compliance regimes necessitate that certain customers need to have a clear handle on their data, be that for retention, legal discovery, search, or other purposes." Enterprises can't afford to lose those capabilities or have them limited in any way, especially when litigation or the threat of non-compliance looms.

Some cloud storage vendors say tapping into their services is like using a utility where you pay for what you use. It's true that these services typically charge on a usage basis: use a little, pay a little; use more, pay more. But there are some pretty big differences when you compare these services to familiar utilities, like buying electricity or water for your home or business.

Those services have been around forever and can reasonably guarantee a predictable level of service. And with utilities like water or electricity, the customer doesn't bear any risk. But if you can't get to or properly manage the data you've stored in the cloud, you could be a lot worse off than just missing the American Idol finale when your power goes out.

In our world, SaaS means "storage as a service," but the rest of IT defines the first "S" in that acronym as "software." That's a significant differentiator. The software cloud guys offer apps that you can tap into and run your own data through, often without actually moving that data out of your shop. Other software-as-a-service offerings are management oriented, with applications residing on distant systems that you can run to maintain and manage your own systems.

Those types of cloud services are likely to do very well, especially when you consider that the risks are much lower for the services' clients. And with so many applications that can take months to implement, cloud software services can be attractive and economical alternatives. But storage is a different animal. On our twice-a-year purchasing surveys, respondents have shown tepid interest in backup-oriented cloud storage services; only 12% to 15% use them at all, and it's typically for special circumstances like backing up remote offices or laptop/desktop data.

Cloud software and cloud-based servers seem much more likely to make it into the enterprise mainstream, as storage cloud providers try to build on the inroads they've made in small- and medium-sized businesses while shoring up their offerings. Cloud storage vendors might see a silver lining to the current economic cloud with companies trying to avoid capital expenditures, but CAPEX consciousness alone won't get these services into enterprise shops. They'll have to build a track record first and, more importantly, a compelling enough case to convince enterprises that their data is safer in the cloud than in their shop.

Click here for a sneak peek at what's coming up in the May issue

BIO: Rich Castagna (rcastagna@storagemagazine.com) is Editorial Director of the Storage Media Group.

This was first published in April 2009

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